Almost 25 minutes into last Wednesday night’s presidential debate, it was already clear Mitt Romney was doing better than expected, and that Barack Obama was a bit flat. But it wasn’t yet obvious at the end of the debate’s first segment that the debate would produce a decisive winner.
Then moderator Jim Lehrer moved from taxes to a discussion of “what to do about the federal deficit, the federal debt.” Mitt Romney spoke first. His two-minute answer was the inflection point in the debate. After that, he was on a roll—a conservative roll. And President Obama would be reduced to an ineffectual defensive crouch—a liberal crouch.
Romney’s statement deserves to be reproduced in full:
Romney: Good. I’m glad you raised that, and it’s a—it’s a critical issue. I think it’s not just an economic issue, I think it’s a moral issue. I think it’s, frankly, not moral for my generation to keep spending massively more than we take in, knowing those burdens are going to be passed on to the next generation, and they’re going to be paying the interest and the principal all their lives.
And the amount of debt we’re adding, at a trillion a year, is simply not moral.
So how do we deal with it? Well, mathematically, there are three ways that you can cut a deficit. One, of course, is to raise taxes. Number two is to cut spending. And number three is to grow the economy, because if more people work in a growing economy, they’re paying taxes, and you can get the job done that way.
The presidents would—president would prefer raising taxes. I understand. The problem with raising taxes is that it slows down the rate of growth. And you could never quite get the job done. I want to lower spending and encourage economic growth at the same time.
What things would I cut from spending? Well, first of all, I will eliminate all programs by this test, if they don’t pass it: Is the program so critical it’s worth borrowing money from China to pay for it? And if not, I’ll get rid of it. Obama-care’s on my list.
I apologize, Mr. President. I use that term with all respect, by the way.
Obama: I like it.
Romney: Good. Okay, good. So I’ll get rid of that.
I’m sorry, Jim, I’m going to stop the subsidy to PBS. I’m going to stop other things. I like PBS, I love Big Bird. Actually like you, too. But I’m not going to—I’m not going to keep on spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for. That’s number one.
Number two, I’ll take programs that are currently good programs but I think could be run more efficiently at the state level and send them to the state.
Number three, I’ll make government more efficient and to cut back the number of employees, combine some agencies and departments. My cutbacks will be done through attrition, by the way.
This is the approach we have to take to get America to a balanced budget. The president said he’d cut the deficit in half. Unfortunately, he doubled it. Trillion-dollar deficits for the last four years. The president’s put it in place as much public debt—almost as much debt held by the public as all prior presidents combined.
The Republican presidential candidate—the conservative presidential candidate—packed a lot into this two-minute answer.
• Romney was willing to argue morality, not just money. His argument on the deficit was made on behalf of future generations against the self-indulgence of the present one. Romney didn’t quote Edmund Burke, but he might have: Society is “a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.” Romney claimed his Burkean reform conservatism isn’t only more prudent than Obama’s baby boomer self-indulgent liberalism. It’s also more just.
• Romney made the case against raising taxes because doing so would undermine economic growth. Romney has spoken a lot during the campaign about jobs and about small business creating jobs—but now he nodded to the broader Reaganite case for economic growth as key to our general social well-being.
• Romney promised to repeal Obama-care—the example of expensive and intrusive big government social engineering, hostility to which triggered the rise of the Tea Party and the Republican sweep of 2010. No amount of propaganda and browbeating has made Obama’s signature legislation any more popular today than it was then. But the repeal of Obama-care had been strangely absent from Romney’s advertising, and not emphasized in his core message. No longer, one trusts.
• Romney, amused by Obama’s embrace of “Obama-care,” replied briskly: “Good. So I’ll get rid of that.” But not just that. Romney emphasized he was willing to put even the beloved Big Bird on the chopping block. The Obama campaign and all the liberal elite’s horses and men and women leapt to Big Bird’s defense. They know Americans like Big Bird, and they assume Americans are so stupid as to think everything they like deserves a government subsidy. With a manly and candid conservatism, Romney said no. He did so not in the spirit of Oscar the Grouch (though The Weekly Standard is rather fond of Oscar the Grouch), but in the good-natured spirit of, say, Chris Christie, explaining government can no longer afford things just because we like them, if they aren’t essential.
So: The Burkean case against trillion-dollar deficits. The Reaganite case for broad-based economic growth. The Tea Party-infused case against Obama-care. The Chris Christie-like case against unnecessary government spending.
Most of the rest of the debate consisted of Romney elaborating on these themes. They did the job Wednesday night. Properly developed and elaborated over the next month, they can do the job on Election Day.